“The searchers of the town, suspecting that we both were in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.” No matter where you look, quarantine and self-isolation rears its ugly head. I suppose that, thanks to the intermittent outbreaks of plague in Elizabethan England, it’s unsurprising that elements of it have seeped into Shakespeare’s work – even in the seemingly small way of delaying a message. Given the juxtaposition of the run to Valentine’s Day (and the fame of the play itself), I doubt that this is why Romeo & Juliet was chosen by Metcalfe Gordon Productions Ltd to ‘stage’, but it’s a nice nod to our current situation – and also ties in with the occasional use of face masks on screen.
In this production, we find ourselves in “the near future”; city residents have taken to living, loving & fighting in empty theatres, roaming from the stalls to backstage to the roof. Once Derek Jacobi’s narrator has delivered the prologue, it launches into the story of star-crossed lovers that we all know.
Going into it there were a couple of gimmes. First (and most obviously), any non-standard practice was COVID-enforced and so it was unlikely to be perfect. It clearly took real dedication to get this production together, and shows a great willingness to embrace the conditions & technology on offer. Secondly, in my eyes Romeo & Juliet is a tough one to get right at the best of times; I’ve seen nine different versions in theatres and only two really spoke to me – the next best one was TSMGO’s Zoom production back in June last year. In spite of these buffers, however, this was really not for me.
They’ve tried to create a world for the play by having the characters seeking sanctuary in theatres, but it feels like they’re too preoccupied with “I miss theatre” to create a meaningful world in which to tell this story. There doesn’t appear to be any particular reason for it, and no attempt has been made to demonstrate threat to or pressure on the characters; for the hurried romance to make sense there needs to be some context, as well as a proper feeling of animosity between the warring houses. I really do feel as though they’ve missed a trick with the setting (it wasn’t actually filmed in a theatre, so it could have been set anywhere) and some of the choices in direction & design – having rising star Sam Tutty in the lead male role may have been opening Shakespeare up to a new audience, so it could have been really adventurous in its approach.
Whilst I admire the effort to bring everyone together in the editing suite, rather than in person on set, it does affect the way interactions come across on screen. I didn’t read up on how it was made before I watched it, as I didn’t want to have any preconceptions going into it (and everyone looks at stuff made mid-pandemic and wonders how it was done anyway), but from the first scene there was just an odd feel to it that I couldn’t put my finger on. The unreal look to it & some people’s movements at times made me think I was watching someone play a computer game (Montagues & Simulets, anyone?), for example when people approached in the background, and the cringey dance entrances to the Capulet party by what looked like a 90s boyband – plus some editing slips meant people either were in place too quickly or there was a flash of where they had previously been standing. Little things that you want ironed out if you’re paying to watch something.
There was a lack of intensity that made the death of Mercutio & Tybalt a bit of a damp squib – I quite literally blinked and missed them both. This also goes back to the lack of tangible conflict in the world of the play: impetus is needed to render events anything but pointless. At times music was used to paper over the cracks and try to engineer atmosphere or emotion, but the sound design wasn’t always on the money; I often found it in competition with dialogue – sometimes the music was simply too loud, sometimes there was too much going on in that particular musical theme, and the use of Spandau Ballet’s Through the Barricades (a good song choice) was marred by the decision to keep the singing going underneath a conversation.
To be perfectly honest, I just don’t think the ‘fakery’ works with a tragedy. Had a comedy been chosen, it could have been added into the light-heartedness of the show as a whole – and the use of technology would have worked wonderfully with something like As You Like It, Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors.
My verdict? An admirable effort at blending Shakespeare with technology that doesn’t quite hit the mark.